Feminists are wasting their time trying to persuade the left’s revolutionary vanguard not to ostracise them.
Watching a brief Twitter interaction between babyfaced lefty weathervane Owen Jones and Jen Harvey, a gender critical feminist, crystallised this for me.
Jen protests at Owen’s characterisation of ‘transphobia’ as something perpetrated by ‘centrists’:
The splendidly angry Twitter thread that follows asks: how dare you try and purge feminists from the left-wing umbrella for defending our own interests?
It’s a good thread. But she’s wasting her time.
Jones’ claim that ‘centrists’ are ‘transphobic’ is a standard left-wing tactic, designed to push in two directions. Firstly, it speaks to anyone who already knows that ‘transphobia’ is a Bad Thing, to claim the fight against this Bad Thing as quintessentially left-wing; and not just the moderate left but the True Left.
Secondly, it speaks to anyone who has an emotional stake in others continuing to recognise them as part of the Lefty Gang, to let them know if they want to keep their designation as part of the Great Virtuous Tribe of Left Wing Goodies and not be kicked to the kerb as nasty, bigoted centrists, they’d better lay off the transphobia.
So, according to Jones, to be left-wing is to support trans people, and to question trans activism is to renounce membership of the left. If you do that, you might be a centrist, or even (shudder) On The Right.
I see a lot of feminists getting really upset about moves like this, which redefine the legitimate field of operations of radical leftism and demand acquiescence by threatening ostracism. Look, I get it – most feminists see themselves as left-wing, and for most left-wing people (including myself, when I was a lefty) being on the left is an important part of personal identity. Left-wing ideology is all about how the world should be, rather than how it currently is, and it’s frustrating and depressing to try and share one’s vision of a world transformed with people who just tell you exasperatedly ‘but that’s not how the world works’. So lefties tend to band together in groups where they can – to a greater or lesser extent – share visions for how the world ought to be.
The problem with this, though, is that how the world ought to be is a movable feast. As it’s grounded only in hopes, dreams, aspirations, rather than observable reality, there’s nothing to stop my lefty vision diverging from yours. At that point, if these two lefties are to continue feeling part of the same movement, there’s a competition for which vision wins out. It would be nice if this were always conducted as a straight competition for which ideal is the most inspiring, but in practice among radicals the main weapon in the battle of ideas is to accuse your ideological opponent of not really being left-wing, or not left-wing enough. Not pure enough.
Under Stalin the purging of visions of transformation that competed with Uncle Joe’s took a literal and brutal form: arrest, incarceration, execution. Fortunately, at least for the moment, we inhabit a world where Owen Jones has no power to send those he dislikes to the gulag, so he is confined to prattling in the Guardian or on Twitter; but trust me, when he warns his fans off centrism and transphobia thus, the mechanism is the same. If you don’t agree with me, you’re not in my gang. You’re a centrist. A Tory. Excommunicated!
Since the 1960s, the march of progressivism has taken on one cause after another, beginning with racism, sexism and homophobia. On these fronts it has indisputably made the world a better place in some respects: we should all treat one another equally and with equal courtesy. As significant gains have been chalked up on these fronts, new anti-discrimination fronts have opened up, of which the latest is transgender rights. Because progressivism works like the EU’s acquis communautaire, right-thinking leftists are expected to add each new progressive cause to those that preceded it. All must be espoused and vocally supported. And it’s one out, all out: to fail in espousing a single progressive cause celebre is to fail entirely as a leftist. (Outside the proper causes, it’s open season: you can support all the genocidal Soviets and IRA bombers you like. But woe betide you if you put a foot wrong on the progressive causes. Campaign all your life for trafficked women, the welfare state, whatever; if you said a bad thing about trans women once in 1992 we will picket you until you die, then dance on your grave.
The problem radical feminists face right now is that they must either abandon their radical feminism, or be abandoned by the left. Radical feminism holds that gender is not a binary but a hierarchy, one perpetuated by a patriarchal society with the intent of keeping women in a subordinate position. The trans activist position, that gender is a matter of inner feelings and identity, seen from this perspective, is an outrage: if gender is a matter of feelings and individual choice, how can anyone critique the unfair power relations perpetuated by social gender structures? Surely if you’re not comfortable with your designation you should just find an identity that’s more comfortable? Radical feminists argue that it just doesn’t work like that. Identifying as something other than female doesn’t change the fact that I’m female bodied, and being female bodied is where it all begins.
So, radical feminists cannot support the literalists of transgender activism, who put inner gender identity ahead of perceptible physiological materiality and state that to be a woman one must simply identify as one. In circular fashion, when asked to define ‘woman’, the answer is ‘someone who identifies as one’. Thus radical feminists have set themselves against transgenderism, which is the current darling of the left. One out, all out: if you question us on this front, you’re probably a bigot on all the others too. Hell, you might even be a centrist.
A lot of feminists are angry at the injustice of this, as in the thread I quoted earlier. We campaign all our lives for the world as we think it ought to be, and for the sake of a few men in dresses you want to take our leftist identities from us? Fuck you. But this is a waste of time. Why? Because the progressive ratchet is relentless. What started with obvious injustices such as racism seeks out ever more nebulous forms of injustice and discrimination to attack, and ever more authoritarian means of doing so. The revolutionary vanguard of the social justice movement is leaving a trail of bruised, angry former leftists in its wake – excommunicants barred from belonging for questioning – say – the impact of open-borders immigration on the indigenous working class, or whether a male-bodied individual with a bass voice, a receding hairline and a fully functioning penis can truly be a woman. American standup comic Owen Benjamin recently stated in a podcast ‘I arrived in LA as a left-winger, and I’m leaving it with people calling me a conservative. My political views haven’t changed’.
Radical feminists, the left is moving under you. Has moved under you. Your political views may not have changed, but some of them now disqualify you for membership of the left. The next group to discover this will be LGB activists, from the days when it really was LGB and not today’s alphabet soup. Your choice is simple: give up radical feminism, or give up on the left.
Though of course it’s up to your personal conscience, in my view the radical feminist analysis of gender relations is an important one, so I hope you choose the latter. The upside is that if you do so, you no longer need to feel hurt and angry when people accuse you of things which are only a problem if you want people to see you as a lefty – such as being a transphobic centrist. You also don’t need to be in Owen Jones’ gang any more. What’s not to like?